Five Great American Paintings (Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter)

This next installment discusses the third of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

Lincoln the Railsplitter (1965)


The power of art rests in its ability to encapsulate the essence of a thing, often in a way that would otherwise be quite difficult to explain in plain words. For example, a philosopher can talk about human virtue–its source and its central role in our lives–but an artist possesses the ability to show virtue; that is, to quantify it and make it real before the viewer. It is in this way that art serves as a crucial spiritual compass, guiding man toward his proper path, inspiring him to persevere when confronted with adversity. Norman Rockwell achieved as much through his 1965 depiction of Abraham Lincoln as a young man in his painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter.”

Again, squelching what we know about Lincoln’s life and focusing only upon what Rockwell presents in his depiction, we see a tall, lean and strong man from a ground level vantage point. The man, perhaps in his early twenties, is dressed in the simple attire of a common laborer. He carries a large ax in one powerful hand; a thick book is gently cradled in the other so he can study it as he walks. He carries a coat draped over his arm; he is prepared for colder weather. A red bandana is tucked into his front pocket, at the ready for him to use it to wipe the sweat from his brow as he works. A plumb-bob hangs from his suspenders; his work, while manual labor, nevertheless requires a tool that ensures accuracy and precision.

All the while, the gray fall sky accents the man’s giant silhouette. In the background, one sees a simple log cabin with a faint trace of smoke emanating from the chimney; fuel for this fire demands work and neither is wasted wantonly. In the foreground, a simple split-rail fence marks a boundary; this is private property. Two stumps of felled trees mark the extreme foreground. Perhaps the man cut these trees down himself with his ax; this settlement is the product of hard work performed recently.

Yet, of all the elements Rockwell presents before us, it is the eyes of this man that most command our attention. Almost closed, they reveal the focus of a man deep in thought; if you walked by him, he might not even notice you ensconced in his book as he is. The man walks with a dual purpose, but it is the discovery of new ideas though his book that indicates his primary goal.

The magnitude of Rockwell’s artistic identification is made clearer if one envisions the man without his book, instead relying strictly upon his physical prowess to secure his place in life. With his ax carried as a latent weapon, we might even evaluate him as a threat. Instead, with his book in hand and his focus firmly upon it, we see a man working diligently to make something better of himself.

Adding what we know of Abraham Lincoln’s history to the image presented before us, we see in Rockwell’s image the essential attributes of the man whose knowledge and wisdom would serve to preserve the American union and liberate the slaves.

Rockwell, in the space of his canvas, shows us that knowledge is power and that even a man from the most humble of circumstances has the ability to shape his own mind, character, and destiny. In another culture, the man presented might be a mere brute, yet his by his pose and the tranquil background that Rockwell presents, we are instead shown that under the Pax Americana, this man can choose to master his life through his mind and that he rises solely through the strength of his own efforts. He may face a struggle, but it is not a bitter struggle; he can prevail, and so can we.

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II: The Homecoming Marine
Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV: The Problem We All Live With
Part V: Freedom of Speech


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